Review by Carmen Germain
by Charles Atkinson
2299 Mattison Lane
Santa Cruz, CA 95062-1821
2006, 96 pages, $12.00
Fossil Honey is the fourth collection of poetry by Charles Atkinson, who taught on the creative writing faculty of the University of California-Santa Cruz for twenty-five years before retiring in 2007. Among other awards, he has received of the Sow’s Ear Poetry Prize, the Stanford Prize, the Comstock Review Prize, and the Emily Dickinson Award.
Once and forever a Banana Slug, I was drawn to the book because of nostalgia for my daily hike through the redwoods to Kresge College and because I missed the slice of ocean view from our apartment in Family Student Housing. I never signed up for a class from Atkinson (so many professors and courses to choose from, and so little time), but after reading these poems, I wish I had.
Apostasy: if I could play an instrument well–a piano, a flute, a horn–would I write poetry? In western culture, music has the power of the minor key, the sound that exposes us. We’re vulnerable to certain memories. We have regrets. We wish and dream and want what can’t be given anywhere, by anyone. When language works this way, it’s a gift from the poet to those who can shut down the chatter of the world and listen. It’s a rare gift when poems take off the top of one’s head, and which poems those would be are, of course, subjective, as Emily would be sure to admit. But the poems in this collection reveal the human family and are personal and universal: we are all sons and daughters, and some of us are fathers and mothers, and some of us are lovers, husbands and wives.
The book is divided into four sections, each focused on relationships within the speaker’s family, and unfolds a coming-of-age narrative. This “growing up” does not have to do with years on earth but with facing responsibility for what life is.
Opening with “The Foolishness of a Map,” the book is a juxtaposition of mixed form that includes meditations, dream logs, the narrative, and the lyric–all serving to mirror the confusions, contradictions, and upheaval of a marriage that is over. The first poem, “Puer Aeternus,” works well as the introduction to the book and acts as its locus. The speaker is “[a]drift at a midsummer revel, its bonfire and/ cheer” and contrasts his past–“[y]ou were devoted to hearth and union—/ ancient role, to anneal you as a man”–with his present: “a drowsing boy turned toward the heat” of sexual desire and abandon. The “eternal boy” of Jungian archetype can be either positive (he’ll grow up; he’ll become wise), or negative (he refuses to grow up; he’ll always remain childlike in his approach to the world). In this poem, the lure of living forever as a boy is strong, “a beckoning zodiac/ in a dream that wants you never to wake—/ adored forever, love without limits at last.” The words “at last” create a world the speaker knows can never exist, but the dream of that world can suffice, for the time being, for the child-god.
What follows takes us out of this dream into the emotional realities of dismantling a family. Desire, grief, and longing haunt the poems, and we have glimpses into the characters in this drama and what they have done to bring about disillusionment. In “Fragmentary, ii. why,” the meditation foreshadows poems later in the collection that question what we must do in this life that too soon ends:
If you ask him–Why did you do it?–
he’ll say almost nothing, a cliché:
he’s dying too soon, he has to
say yes to whatever is left.
“Ring Ceremony” turns on its head the marriage rite of the exchange of rings; the husband and wife disband separately in their own rituals–“[s]he must have slipped it off in their room—/ after work, a shower—//forgot to put it back on;/ it was easy.” And the husband “holds/ the hand under cold water, soaps his knuckle/ to work the band free.” Years since I thought about what this felt like, the ring finger naked. Divorce, if you haven’t experienced it, is getting off a train in a foreign country you’ve never seen on a map. You don’t speak the language, you aren’t dressed for the weather, you don’t recognize the food. You wear a new label that sticks out of the neck of your coat. Atkinson fumbles around in this new place, and he helps readers remember its strangeness or sets them down in the station for the first time. The last poem in this section tells us more:
Early summer alone.
The foolishness of a map. If only your life
were as clear as water on granite, if you
knew each plunge would take you where
you needed to go, you might begin again.
“Perfection Means to Hurt” moves the focus from divorce to the relationship of father and sons in the aftermath of divorce, but also explores how fathers live on in their sons, and how sons will grow to supplant their fathers. Again, as with the first section, no reliable maps exist for this journey, and the speaker in his need longs for the senex (in opposition to the puer) the Old Man, the wise one who can tell him what he needs to know to be a father, to be a man. The poems shift in tone here and show the opening into self-awareness. The father is beginning to understand his life, how he didn’t know how to show emotion to those he loved, emotion which means communication, which means this is what matters in human relationships. Atkinson has explored this idea before in other work, and the poems here recall Tony Hoagland (and others) who have also addressed the problem of men who consider “feeling” an “f” word and thus cannot or will not express emotion beyond anger. The great fear, of course, is of vulnerability. But Atkinson captures what is lost by this suppression in “Greeting Grown Sons,” a poem that most men have lived:
I used to study gestures
at the airport gates. This
is how the fathers do it:
clap a sunburnt arm
around a strapping shoulder—
one quick squeeze to skirt
the touch and silence—push
away and start the banter.
I know what’s expected.
but I’ve grown more impulsive
and wave my arms above
the crowd; I elbow forward,
strain, enfold his muscled
back without a word.
We rock back and forth,
eyes shut, a channel buoy
that cleaves the roiling current.
When we break I stammer—
At last…I’ve missed…ok?
still, the tears surprise me.
The P.A. crackles, luggage
tumbles to the carousel.
All my father missed.
“Let Go” continues the exploration of family and serves to express love and trepidation regarding the mother. The poems frame young motherhood, aging, and death and reveal the mother’s mantra toward her son: “You can be better.” The poet now understands what this has meant, how the advice to encourage him has resulted in the opposite effect. He can never be good enough, can never meet her expectations. The poems continue to be self-revelatory but are never self-indulgent. They are the insights and sorrows of a mature man.
In “Grown Up,” the speaker faces his mother’s death when he has a birthday. Even if we are sixty when we celebrate our seasons, our mother or father, if we are fortunate to still have them, remind us of our place within our original family. Someone has said that we do not truly grow up until we have lost our parents. In this poem, the poet recalls the last card he received from his mother:
from her bed—a simple pen and ink, Canada geese
winging north–from a Longtime Admirer.
I was at the window. Thirty years and never
once had she said that, the treeline wavering,
my nose dripping—and I knew then how much
it would have helped to hear those words before.
Too late to tell her: all the years, and still I’d
never been quite good enough to make her glad.
Too late to chasten her, and maybe just as well–
by March I found what it meant to be
grown up in the world, no one left to blame.
So this is his understanding: In this life we are clumsy, dropping things, trying to get through the swamps of this uncharted land. We must forgive ourselves, forgive each other.
Poems for the poet’s father comprise the last division in the collection, “Reading the River,” as the poems come full circle back to their origin, the connection between boy and man, son and father. The poem that resonated with me–no, too inadequate a word–seared my skull, and (dare I use this word that shows such vulnerability?) my heart: “Avocados for My Father.” Very personal for Atkinson, very personal for me, and worth quoting in whole:
Diffident for years, he now tells perfect strangers—
This week I’ll be ninety!—amazing them, the way
he’d hoped. In honor, children and their children
arrive from other coasts, from their important lives,
convene at a long white table to celebrate a man for
what he did by avoiding harm—a childhood of hurt
he didn’t pass on. Here to witness the glacial
creep of generations toward the good—a raised fist
that doesn’t descend, the settling face across a table.
They jest at the awkward—neckties, jaunty toasts,
which fork for what—discourse on the soup, glazed
onions, steak and shrimp. Someone recalls lobster—
a picnic in Nantucket (one of them lugged avocadoes),
cherries from the Fingerlakes. They make the affable
chatter of those who choose to get along—seasons
and the tales of children.
One of them, unsettled,
wants to tap a glass, rise and, face to face,
Thank you for your life, Old Man—I love you.
It would be indiscreet and spoil a genial meal.
He waits for the moment, longing to affirm it and,
diffident for years, he now tells perfect strangers.
Thus these last poems fulfill the promise of the book. Cycles can be broken. The poet has moved from the dream of life (its sweet and illusionary boy-song) to the more realistic promise of life: pleasure and suffering–faced and understood and expressed–have made him fully alive, fully human, fully grown. But there’s more here than one man’s journey to understand his life and the “fossil honey” of memory. The poems tell us again and again that we cannot take any of this for granted, that we have to say and feel and face what there is that makes this life worth its high price, the wages we must pay by our death. Don’t tell perfect strangers. Tell the ones you love.
Cherry Grove published Carmen Germain’s poetry collection These Things I Will Take with Me, and recent work has appeared in the anthologies New Poets of the American West and A Sense of Place, a Google Earth project featuring Washington state poets.